Two weeks and three elections: An Observer’s notes

Adam Somerset offers a perspective on the final weeks of the election campaign.

April 17th: Gatwick

A first flight in seven years, the timing squeezed in between Easter holidays and election week. A jet with twenty passengers suggests that it is not exactly high season for visitors.

April 18th: Tyrol

So it proves with the ski-ers gone and the walkers yet to come. The main street down by the River Inn has few visitors in number but those who there show a world shifted on its axis. Deng Xiaoping is the most significant world leader of the second half of the last century. Not a US accent is to be heard. The chatter and the snap of camera-phones are all Chinese.

The Germano-Austrian world breathes order and stability. Only in Germany do public servants wear zip-up jackets with the insignia “Ordnungsamt” or “the Office for Order”. The tranquillity is skin-deep. The newspaper front pages are stuffed with news from the Brenner. The border with Italy is twenty miles away. Austria is trucking in concrete to lay the foundations for a border control building.

Italy is incandescent. Demonstrations have led to police injury. The area to the south is historically, culturally and linguistically bound to the Inn Valley in a manner far deeper than that between Scotland and England. It may be all sun and Sachertorte in the streets; Schengen is withering day on day.

April 19th: Tyrol

The country has an election in a few days’ time. It is for the Presidency. The trams all have screens with a stream of news and advice. The frequent “Watch out for hepatitis” warnings are probably code but are obviously in dead earnest. Explanations pop up as to the constitutional role of the President.

The candidates, a slew of them, are all men, looking to be all of a seniority. Their faces are everywhere on billboards, often cheek by jowl with ubiquitous Subway advertisements, showing off young Austrians as “sandwich artists.”

April 23rd: Lower Bavaria

With a host who is well informed on current affairs and keeps a constant ear on the BBC World Service.

Self: “There’s an election in Austria tomorrow.”

Host: “Is there? No-one in Germany really notices Austria.”

April 24th: Lower Bavaria

The headline news is the clear lead in the presidential first round for the People’s Party. Our host reminds us that the Party’s image had been damaged somewhat when its charismatic leader was found on death to be returning from an S&M hang-out. The headline prominence given to Austria’s election is reminder of what makes news. News is what happens when things goes wrong.

April 30th: Aberystwyth

10:30 Great Darkgate Street has four parties out on the stump and I have conversations with three of them. Politics is unpredictable but to see pictures a-plenty of the former MP for Tatton 1983-1987 takes it to the limit. He is not there himself, although I have once been in his proximity. In his lowest days, after May 1997, he was the only other waiting passenger, myself apart, in an empty late-night tube station. The most revealing aspect was that his appearance had not a line or hint of stress or trouble to it.

It is a quality that is now a regular in popular psychology- it features at Hay 2016- known as the grit factor.

The conversation with a Labour veteran reaches back a long way. Labour has a long-standing admirable local figure in the form of Lampeter’s Hag Harris. Our memories are long. I was, I tell her, in a packed hall this February for a passionate address by the Shadow Foreign Secretary. He was for Europe. But then I was also in a packed space, a long while back, to see his father arguing quite the opposite. History indeed repeats itself as tragedy or farce. A mention of London elicits a shudderingly physical grimace of reaction.

May 1st: Aberaeron

Switch to BBC Scotland to watch the leaders debate live. Scotland is different from Wales. For a start Hopetoun House is the grand host to five rather than six party leaders. Even more it is about women. Willie Rennie & Patrick Harvie, Libdems & Greens, are both lucid but they are placed either side of three women leaders, as well as an authoritative woman moderator.

The issues too are different. Just as the summer before last, my most recent visit, the concentration of high-talent jobs, the science and technical concentration that is Faslane, and their loss in the repudiation of Trident is to the fore. The debate ignites too over whether Scotland’s own Parliament has the right to call a referendum should it be hauled out of the EU against the country’s popular will. As for Ruth Davidson if she becomes the opposition on Friday it is because she is performing her constitutional duty. An Opposition opposes.

The most revealing aspect is the palpable audience anger over the PFI schools that are falling apart. People will put up with a lot on their own account. But when Government messes with their children there are going to be consequences.

May 2nd: Aberaeron  

8:15 Adrian Masters on ITV is sharing a mushroom risotto prepared by the First Minister. Have I heard rightly? Questioned about distractions from a city in another country it sounds as if Carwyn is saying, in paraphrase “there’s no malign influence from London. This is a manifesto written in Wales and made for Wales.”

10:20: Adrian Masters is back with representatives from six parties. With forty-eight hours to go he asks after their state of being. They confess one and all to exhaustion but exhilaration. If the hustings have been rambunctious the temper in the studio is placid and peaceable.

The relations between the parties and the four nations may be noisesome and fissile. The workings of the state are filled with mis-step, waste, error and caprice. But Wales and Scotland are different from Austria. Austria is calm on the surface but tranquillity belies a tremulous shape-altering instability. The United Kingdom feels like surface noise over continuity. The quasi-federalism project is half-formed. Scotland most likely will follow the nations of Asia and Africa in departing mother England. But it feels good, and proud, to be present and, albeit in a tiny way, participant.

Adam Somerset is a Critic.

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